In an exclusive interview with Karen News, Ms Charm Tong, a founder of the Shan Women’s Action Network, expressed grave concerns over ongoing Burma Army offensives in Shan State in areas of supposed ceasefire, and criticised the international community for not applying more pressure on the government to stop its offensives.
“There are three thousand Burma Army soldiers in Shan State Army – North territory and villagers are fleeing for their lives because of offensives in this area. Crops are being destroyed, the houses of villagers are being occupied and their belongings are being looted.” Charm Tong said, “Even villagers close to the conflict are facing greater restrictions on movement and cannot even go to their farms – threatening their livelihood.”
Founded in 1999, SWAN seeks to promote the rights of ethnic Shan women and is a member of the Women’s League of Burma.
Ms Charm Tong was critical of Burma’s much lauded reforms, while it continued military campaigns in areas of Shan and Kachin State.
“Just making the so called peace process more difficult because the Burma Army are reinforcing their positions in the ceasefire, including with artillery,” she said, adding, “How can the people think about peace when the Burma Army troops are there?
Ms Charm Tong, who has received multiple human rights awards and met top world leaders, including former US President, George W. Bush, said that the international community, keen to praise reforms under Burma’s President, U Thein Sein, was “silent” when it came to the abuse of ethnic peoples by the security forces.
“There can be no more silence about continued aggression against ethnic people,” Ms Charm Tong said, “the international community must not be quiet about these attacks, when the Burma Government are talking big about peace and a nationwide ceasefire.”
Armed conflict in areas of Shan and Kachin States had raged for almost three years. Earlier this month, a coalition of Shan community-based-organisations, including SWAN and the Shan Human Rights Foundation, urged US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to pressure for a cessation in government offensives while on an official visit to Burma.
SHRF added their voice to Ms Charm Tong’s concerns over a lack of action by the international community.
“When we see there is no real change from the government side – the people are crying for help. We are frustrated at the international community. We are human and we deserve human dignity like everyone else,” Hor Hseng, from SHRF, told Karen News.
“The international community sees these as minor abuses because of the reforms. Maybe they think those issues are bigger than ethnic conflict. But if it was their relatives that were raped or killed how would they feel?” Hor Hseng added.
A report in June by the human rights watchdog, Fortify Rights, found that government security forces were committing “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” against civilians in Shan and Kachin States. The 71-page Fortify Rights report, Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar, documented dozens of cases of torture and abuse of civilians by members of the Burma Army, Police and Military Intelligence, since conflict first erupted in June 2011. The victims interviewed described being beaten, forced to have sexual intercourse with another prisoner, threatened with being shot and, in at least one case, forced to lick pools of their own blood.
Conflict in Northern Burma has displaced more than 100,000 civilians into 165 displacement camps and has claimed hundreds of lives. Far from a small and localized conflict, the Kachin and Shan State war has seen the use of government helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and airplanes.
Ms Charm Tong said it was hard for villagers to report human rights abuse cases to human rights groups and community organisations.
“It is hard to speak out against men with guns,” Ms Charm Tong said, noting, “Our work is to present the voices of villagers on the frontlines of the conflict to the international community.”
But Ms Charm Tong said even that could be difficult, since many organisations were still outlawed under Burma’s State Protection laws. “Law 17 (1) can be used to arrest people in ‘illegal organisations’ anytime, even members of political parties running for office can be arrested. This law must be amended.”
“Another key thing that must happen is that there is acknowledgment of human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army. Calling for acknowledgement that these cases as a crime against humanity should be a first step for trust building. There also needs to be a commission of inquiry on land confiscation, the torture of civilians and the massacres of innocents. We have to look at these atrocities and come face to face with Burma’s history of systematic human rights abuses so we can move forward.”
Ms Charm Tong concluded that accountability of military-perpetrated crimes was key as abuses continued.
“This is especially important because abuses are continuing today. As you can see in Chin State last month, a Chin woman was allegedly attacked and raped by a Burma Army soldier. The fact is, rape as a weapon of war is continuing right now.”